2.3 million visitors spent $364 million in Columbus over the last year. What’s our secret?

Kiki and Tanisha Dean stepped off a raft at Whitewater Express Friday afternoon, soaked in water and invigorated by their trip down the Chattahoochee River.

In town for four days visiting their aunt, the Orlando, Florida residents had typed “Fun things to do in Columbus, Georgia” into Google and came up with a list of must-see local attractions. Next on their list was the Coca-Cola Space Science Center, the National Infantry Museum and a zombie scavenger hunt.

“We always wanted to go white water rafting, but we didn’t know it was here until we looked it up,” Kiki said. “It was amazing. We want to come back and do the Class V white water rafting next time.”

Kiki and Tanisha are two of the millions of visitors that come to Columbus each year and find themselves in the midst of a tourists’ haven.

According to the local visitor’s bureau, 2.3 million people visited the city in fiscal year 2019, which is an increase of 400,000 people over the year before.

It’s the first time that number has broken 2 million, according to Peter Bowden, president and chief executive officer of Visit Columbus GA.

Bowden said the city has “matured as a destination,” giving people reason to come, stay a while and spend their hard-earned cash. The local economy was infused with $364 million from tourism between July 1, 2018 and June 30, 2019, according to the visitor’s bureau.

“We have a lot of cool stuff going on in Columbus these days. Visitors come and find their niche and what they’re into: art, food, adventure, those kinds of things,” Bowden said. “We’ve really gotten in stride and positioned ourselves as a destination.”

Whitewater Express general manager Will Chambliss says tourists have always been the bread and butter for the business.

“We have seen an increase in the people coming down the river and in people coming from other places,” he said. “We’re the closest rafting to the entire state of Florida so we see a lot of Floridians coming to us.”

The business actively markets to the Gulf coast, which is home to numerous military bases. And while a large number of visitors are from Florida, Georgia and Alabama, Chambliss says the attraction brings people from across the globe as well.

“You’d be surprised at the international travel,” he said. “We see a lot of people that will come in from overseas and they’re coming in for a holiday or vacation or a wedding in Charleston or Savannah, and they’re going to fly out of New Orleans. We are a direct line from there, so we see all sorts of international travelers that will stop here for the night.”

Columbus also draws people who live in the region but have to pass through the city on the way to somewhere else.

“If you think about it, actually we’re a pretty good middle ground for a lot of different places as people are traveling through and so they’ll put us on their map,” Chambliss said.

Increasing capacity for visitors

Bowden said the city appears to be experiencing “a little growth spurt” as physical evidence of tourism and hospitality investment is starting to crop up around the city.

With plans surfacing for a third hotel in the uptown area and construction work finally being done on two more hotels that have been in the works for some time, the city is slowly rising up to meet the lodging demand for visitors.

“Anyone that is making an investment in a hotel has done their research so they know that there is a demand or a need for it,” Bowden said.

And the one area Bowden knows the city is lacking is in infrastructure for meetings and conferences: the 300-plus rooms that will be supplied by new hotels in the vicinity of the trade center will make a huge difference, he said.

“We’ve got research over the past years that has said we need more hotels adjacent to the convention center if we’re going to remain competitive in the convention and meeting business,” Bowden said. “We no longer compete at the level we could 10, 15 years ago because the cities we compete against have increased their infrastructure.”

One example Bowden gave is the Georgia Governor’s Tourism Conference, which the convention center hosted in 1999 and 2006. Now, he says, that conference is too big for Columbus.

“So we’ve got a track record with a convention that is very prestigious, brings the leadership of all tourism to Columbus, brings the governor to Columbus, and we no longer have the infrastructure to host that event downtown,” he said. “These new hotels that are being built, being proposed, gives us that edge again where we become competitive.”

The market has also shifted as more people visit the city as tourists, as opposed to coming to attend a Fort Benning graduation, a RiverCenter concert or a business conference. Mamie Pound, who has owned and operated the Rothschild-Pound Inn bed and breakfast in the historic district for 24 years, says she has seen the change firsthand.

“We do have a lot of people who come here for a weekend getaway now, more so than 10 years ago,” she said. “There are so many good places to eat and the river and entertainment and that kind of thing that people can stay here two or three days and do something different and fun every day.”

With a $364 million impact last year, it’s hard to imagine what Columbus would look like today without its thriving tourism industry.

“A lot of people don’t understand that if those 2.3 million people didn’t come here, there would be a big hole: their favorite restaurant probably wouldn’t exist, the city would have to look for more sources for revenue to provide services, 4,600 people would not have jobs,” Bowden said. “It certainly reinforces the aspect of tourism as economic development.”

Why the increase

Bowden’s office received the new data from Columbus State University professor Dr. Benjamin Blair, who calculates the economic impact of visitors and visitor spending on the city each year.

While the number of visitors tracked by Blair have been steady around 1.8 million at least as far back as 2013, 2019 saw a significant jump. Bowden said he thinks he knows why.

First, his office took the advice of a consultant who told them to focus their marketing on certain demographics.

“We’ve shifted our messaging to target more of a leisure market, and we specifically targeted multi-gen travelers,” he said. “These were boomers traveling with millennials traveling with extended family, so we had parents and children and grandchildren and in some instances, this research said, there would be aunts and uncles and cousins and so forth, so we shifted our message to that audience.”

Secondly, the methodology of tracking visitors continues to be refined, Bowden said.

“The team has gotten better at collecting data and also Dr. Blair...he continues to refine his model so as that evolves, tracking and the numbers get more and more accurate,” Bowden said.

Tourism by the numbers: Fiscal Year 2019

2.3 million total visitors

$364 million spent locally

4,602 jobs supported

$123 million estimated payroll

$22.8 million in sales and lodging tax revenue

$577 tax savings per household

$23.70 return on investment for every dollar spent by Visit Columbus GA

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Allie Dean is the Columbus city government and accountability reporter for the Ledger-Enquirer, and also writes about new restaurants, developments and issues important to readers in the Chattahoochee Valley. She’s a graduate of the University of Georgia.